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Published on 23rd October, 2015
by Ergonomics Department

What is Ergonomics?


This documents covers the following topics:

  • Definition of ergonomics
  • The origins of ergonomics
  • Product design
  • Human error

Most people have heard of ergonomics and think it is something to do with seating or with the design of car controls and instruments. It is...but it is much more! Ergonomics is the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems and environment for human use. Ergonomics comes into everything which involves people. Work systems, sports and leisure, health and safety should all embody ergonomics principles if well designed.

Why is the video recorder one of the most frustrating domestic items to operate? Why do some car seats leave you aching after a long journey? Why do some computer workstations confer eyestrain and muscle fatigue? Such human irritations and inconveniences are not inevitable – ergonomics is an approach which puts human needs and capabilities at the focus of designing technological systems. The aim is to ensure that humans and technology work in complete harmony, with the equipment and tasks aligned to human characteristics.

Definition of Ergonomics

Ergonomics is about 'fit': the fit between people, the things they do, the objects they use and the environments they work, travel and play in. If good fit is achieved, the stresses on people are reduced. They are more comfortable, they can do things more quickly and easily, and they make fewer mistakes. So when we talk about 'fit', we don't just mean physical fit, we are concerned with psychological and other aspects too. That is why ergonomics is often called 'Human Factors'.

The origins of ergonomics

Ergonomics is a relatively new branch of science which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1999, but relies on research carried out in many other older, established scientific areas, such as engineering, physiology and psychology. It originated in World War 2, when scientists designed advanced new and potentially improved systems without fully considering the people who would be using them. It gradually became clear that systems and products would have to be designed to take account of many human and environmental factors if they are to be used safely and effectively. This awareness of people’s requirements resulted in the discipline of ergonomics.

Product design

Even the simplest of products can be a nightmare to use if poorly designed. Our ancestors didn't have this problem. They could simply make things to suit themselves. These days, the designers of products are often far removed from the end users, which makes it vital to adopt an ergonomic, user-centred approach to design, including studying people using equipment, talking to them and asking them to test objects. This is especially important with 'inclusive design' where everyday products are designed with older and disabled users in mind.

Some years ago, researchers compared the relative positions of the controls on a lathe with the size of an average male worker. It was found that the lathe operator would have to stoop and move from side to side to operate the lathe controls. An ‘ideal’ sized person to fit the lathe would be just 4.5 feet tall, 2 feet across the shoulders and have an arm span of 8 feet. This example highlights the shortcoming in design when no account has been taken of the user. People come in all shapes and sizes, and the Ergonomist takes this variability into account when influencing the design process. The branch of ergonomics that deals with human variability in size, shape and strength is called anthropometry. Tables of anthropometric data are used by ergonomists to ensure that places and items that they are designing fit the users.

Human Error

In some industries the impact of human errors can be catastrophic. These include the nuclear and chemical industries, rail and sea transport and aviation, including air traffic control.

When disasters occur, the blame is often laid with the operators, pilots or drivers concerned - and labelled 'human error'. Often though, the errors are caused by poor equipment and system design. Ergonomists working in these areas pay particular attention to the mental demands on the operators, designing tasks and equipment to minimise the chances of misreading information or operating the wrong controls, for example.

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